There is a growing discussion in our institution about the ‘values’ and the principles which we should use to run the organisation, make decisions and design the future. Few people would argue that ‘values’ are irrelevant – even politicians dare to refer to them when there is a moral outrage or a disclosure of unethical behaviour.
However as Edgar Schein (the man credited with inventing the term ‘corporate culture’) noted back in the 1980s, what an organisation says are its values are not necessarily the same as its ACTUAL values. This makes sense because in reality, organisations don’t have values – it is the people within them that carry and interpret values, on an individual or collective basis (probably both).
Actual values are represented in rules, policies, conversations and behaviours (including our decisions to ignore or break rules); these are the things which are followed by people on a day-to-day basis. Values may be stated or unstated, but because they guide the way people think and work, it is the actual, enacted values which most accurately describe the culture of the organisation (rather than the common wish-lists included on posters or corporate websites).
One challenge is to understand what those actual values are and then to decide if any need changing. The consistency and integrity of stated and actual values is not just a conversation topic; it has impact on performance and results. If we say we value innovation, then that must be reflected in the innovative way we work, the innovative services or products we offer and the innovative skills and mindsets of people that are recruited, retained, developed and promoted.
However, if an organisation claims to be innovative (or ‘encourages innovation’), yet has rules, sets budgets or makes decisions which are constructed such that they prevent or discourage people from innovating, it is clear that:
i) innovation is not a meaningful value at all.
ii) staff will be demotivated; a lack of integrity in ‘values’ creates cynicism and undermines trust.
iii) mismatches between ‘what we say’ and ‘what we do’ de-stabilises people, decisions and work.
To make matters worse, it is likely that points i, ii and iii combine, discouraging otherwise innovative staff even further, thereby making the organisation even LESS innovative than might have been the case had ‘innovation’ never been promoted in the first place.
This is why it can be so damaging if values and vision are addressed, discussed and promoted by an organisation without the full and consuming understanding and commitment of the leaders who wish to see them implemented. It can never be a paper exercise, because the negative the consequences are real.
So if we are going to talk values in our organisation, we need to do this with integrity and care – based on very clear thinking. If our thinking is muddled, our message will appear confused. Confusion runs the risk that our value system will be considered either unauthentic or ill thought-out; either of which reduces the credibility of what we say.
This presents several challenges. How do we make sure that the values we espouse are internally consistent (with each other) and how are the same values externally validated through our own behaviour (and shown to be authentic)? This might seem to be a significant challenge, but there is a silver lining:
If we see inconsistencies in values and behaviour that others see, by changing our behaviour and creating helpful, meaningful consistency, we will show that we are serious and this will influence other people, accelerating the change.
By working hard to fall behind clear values, and re-set the rules, policies, conversations and behaviours in the institution, leaders can have a big impact on culture. Some organisations have been transformed this way in relatively short periods of time.
Leaders need to develop a good ‘cultural radar’ and be aware of how people’s behaviours match (or do not match) the desired values of the organisation – and be ready to challenge where necessary.
With the correct thinking it is possible for Leaders to develop conversations with everyone about shared values. These conversations can occur in any meeting, or at set-piece events such as a ‘management forum’, a strategic presentation, a new-employee induction event, or at an all-employee ‘town hall’ gathering). Conversations should enable constructive challenge concerning how things work now and what might be an agenda for change. The change agenda should be set at a practical level, addressing aspects of service delivery, budget setting, recruitment and promotion, for example.
Everybody should be expected to maintain integrity in the way that they operate against the communicated values. This includes being courageous enough to challenge inconsistencies when they become apparent and having a healthy and supportive debate when new or unexpected issues arise to challenge our previous assumptions.
Integrity starts with ourselves, then flows out to others with whom we work; it builds trust.
Read more on Organisational Culture:
Schein E. (2004) Organizational Culture and Leadership, John Wiley and Sons, NY